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Description: English Art and Modernism 1900–1939
~This book was written with two principal purposes in mind. The first was that it should offer an informative and readable history of modern art in England during the first four decades of the twentieth century. In the course of a continuous narrative, I meant to make a case for the strengths of some early twentieth-century English art, and to support the view that...
PublisherPaul Mellon Centre
PublisherYale University Press
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Preface to the Second Edition
This book was written with two principal purposes in mind. The first was that it should offer an informative and readable history of modern art in England during the first four decades of the twentieth century. In the course of a continuous narrative, I meant to make a case for the strengths of some early twentieth-century English art, and to support the view that those strengths are often considerable. The case still needs making. The sculpture of Henry Moore may now be ubiquitous, but Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth are still widely treated as minor figures by comparison with a number of continental artists of lesser interest, while Walter Sickert, Harold Gilman and Paul Nash all remain largely unconsidered outside the British Isles, and virtually unrepresented in public collections outside the British Commonwealth, though each produced a distinctive body of painting in an individual modern vein.
The second purpose of the book was that it should serve to stimulate and assist inquiry into the nature of modernism itself. To pursue this second purpose was necessarily to acknowledge the limits of any history which concerns itself with English art alone, for there can be no adequate account of modernism in art which derives its critical interests and protocols from a survey of national tendencies alone. At the beginning of the twentieth century modern art very largely meant French art. By the time of the First World War, the idea of a modern movement had become an international preoccupation, but for the first three decades of the century at least there was to be no English contribution to this movement which a foreign observer would have regarded as central. To look for specifically English forms of modern art, then, is to examine the development of modernism within a provincial world. Unless pursued uncritically, a history of the modern in English art will inevitably concern itself on the one hand with achievements which were largely marginal, and on the other with a climate of persistent resistance and retrenchment in face of more uncompromising European developments.
To say this, however, is not to say that such a history must itself be marginal to the understanding of modernism in art. The preoccupation with modernity has in general been both inflating and deflating of the ambitions of art. Though it has served to encourage global and epochal visions, it has also entailed a sceptical attention to the actual conditions of practice. It needs to be born in mind that the grand modernist themes upon which art history tends to dwell were at specific moments and in specific places – not only in Paris or Munich or Moscow but also in Cumberland and St Ives – among the working materials of modest studios. If modernism is to be understood as historically specific, its larger pretensions must be studied in the light of clearly situated examples. The English art of the early twentieth century offers a fertile source of such examples.
To pursue the two purposes I mention requires of the book that it cope intellectually with the tension between them: that the larger questions of modernism and modernity should be kept in mind, but that the implications of those questions should be clearly exposed in discussion of local issues and incidental details. These implications are matters both of historical inquiry and of continual critical moment. To view a given work of art as ‘English’ or as ‘modern’ is to bring a range of valuations to bear – or a range of assumptions about what is and is not of value. To talk of a modern English art would normally be to convey a kind of double approval: to suggest that the work in question is at one and the same time modern in a culturally specific fashion, and representative of the national culture at its most progressive. It is also to imply that no contradiction is involved in this. But the evidence of history is that this last implication is by no means always a secure one. It is one clear lesson of the period under review – a lesson amply confirmed by the art history of the ensuing half century – that the meanings of modernism cannot always or often be made to coincide with the particular values generally associated with English culture. The resulting tensions are informative and interesting. The painter Paul Nash was one of those moved to speculation about the problems and possibilities of ‘Going Modern and being British’ – the title of an essay he devoted to the subject in 1932. This book offers some detailed material for the study of those problems and possibilities, though it does not pretend to resolve the former or to prescribe the latter.
A study with the aims I have specified could not conceivably be comprehensive. Nor could it be entirely objective in the selection of its material. To single out the modern from the national artistic culture is inevitably to discriminate, and to do so, moreover, in accordance with certain ideas both about the identifying characteristics of the national culture and about what is and is not modern. These ideas and discriminations will be open to question. The present study can lay claim to objectivity only to the extent that it is a history of a history: an account of what has already been singled out and considered as modern in the English art of the first four decades of the century. I do not pretend to neutrality, however, on those occasions when the ‘English’ and the ‘modern’ appear to be in conflict, nor are my own preferences altogether concealed from the reader. (It troubled some reviewers that they could not connect these preferences in terms of one coherent theoretical position – such as the ‘marxist approach’ attributed to the book by some. It did not trouble me.) In fact it is in the relatively circumspect manner in which many of its judgements are expressed that I would now see this book as most clearly marked by the conditions of its production. It was written as part of an enterprise on which several friends and colleagues and contemporaries were more or less consciously engaged during the 1970s: an attempt on various fronts to review the history of artistic modernism, and to recover a sense of the modern as a contested and contestable value. At the time it seemed important to resist that hegemonic and homogenizing representation of the modern tradition which had come to be identified as Modernism (with a capital M). That this was a necessary project was an intuition uniting certain groups and individuals in several countries who were variously engaged in art history, art criticism and the practice of art. It was a condition of this project that scepticism should be stepped up not only in face of the judgements of critics in the Modernist tradition, but also as regards the forms of art which those judgements had tended to approve. As a kind of corollary, the disparaged, the disregarded and the marginalised were viewed as the objects of prospective practical interest and as the potential bearers of critical virtue. In face of what seemed a Modernist co-option of the modern tradition, what we were looking for was a history to be going on with.
Since then, the rewriting of the history of modern art has proceeded apace, and the edifice of Modernist theory and criticism is widely supposed to have collapsed altogether under the incoming tides of the postmodern. During the period which separates the two editions of this book, it has been loudly claimed within the politics of culture that modernism itself is also passé, that is to say not only the tradition of critical methods and priorities but the whole modern phase in art which those methods and priorities served for better or worse to distinguish. Within the culture of politics over the same period it has also been loudly claimed that conservatism is modern.
What is clearer to me now than it was when the original text of this book was completed is that a third term is necessarily implicated in the conversation of values between modernism and Englishness. There can be no sensible sorting-out of the ground on which these values are related, that’s to say, which does not recognise that each is inflected by the meaning accorded to conservatism. It is now necessary to make clear what it previously seemed possible to take for granted: that the critique of modernism (capitalised or not) has failed if all it does is usher in the conservative as a supposed form of modernity, irrespective of whether the conservatism in question is conceived in a political or in an artistic form.
This book is certainly designed to encourage a sceptical attitude towards some typical assumptions of Modernist theory. Among its other objectives, and against the dominant tendency of Modernist criticism, it is also intended to affirm the vividness of descriptive picturing as a mode of representation. But I did not imagine when I wrote it that it could be read either as a defence of cultural nationalism against the cosmopolitan tendencies of modernism, or as an argument for conservative forms of picturing in face of the difficulties of abstract art. There were reviewers who proved me wrong on both counts, however.
There is not much the writer can or should do to protect against those who read simply for confirmation of their own interests. But had I been able to anticipate the intellectual and political climate of the last dozen years I would have been more sceptical of the requirements of ‘balance’ in argument (though not of the requirements of logical adequacy), and less concerned about those of my preferences which comported with the judgements of earlier critics, Modernist or not. Were this to be a substantially revised edition I would not now wish significantly to revise its judgements upon the works of individual artists. But I would argue very much less circumspectly against the equation of Realism with an antimodernist populism, and against the equation of cultural nationalism with a conservative virtue. For it remains the case that when either of these forms of equation is elevated on the cultural agenda, it is to some species of unmitigated modernism that we have to look for the renewal of critical values. (My circumspection was in part the consequence of the very enterprise I saw myself as engaged in at the time: an enterprise which required the maintenance of some distance from Modernist methods and judgements. It has to be acknowledged that if what is required is argument against anti-modernist populism or conservative cultural nationalism, the resources of Modernist criticism have still to be improved on.)
The writing of this book was part of my own process of learning about modern art in general. The most substantial conclusion I drew from it was that modernism and realism are mutually implicated terms if not coincidental as forms of description. To the extent that the virtues they stand for tend to converge upon the same range of objects, neither can be rendered consistent with conservatism. But the more the tokens of modernism and realism can be distinguished in practice, the more plausible it becomes to identify realism with conservatism, including those forms of conservatism which entail cultural nationalism. English Art and Modernism was not written in order to demonstrate a given pattern in these relations. But I hope that it will be found useful and interesting by those who wish to study them. And I hope it will serve as a reminder that the detail also matters.
It will quickly become clear to readers of the book that there is no way of using the designations ‘modern’, ‘modernist’ and ‘Modernist’ so as to avoid any overlap. They should be understood as adding various forms of stress to the discussion of ideas and examples. Throughout the book, ‘modern’ is used as a relatively weak and casual valuation – or at least as one which the reader might fairly take as reflecting my own views, however informally ordered and expressed. The term ‘modernist’ in the lower case is used to imply that some work or enterprise had been represented as modern in terms of a particular set of ideas and interests not necessarily compatible with the spirit of the text. The degree of coherence to be attributed to such ideas and interests is a critical issue for any history of modern art. A capitalized ‘Modernism’ and ‘Modernist’ is used where I intend reference to a self-conscious point of view or to the articulation of a purportedly consistent critique or theory. Thus a ‘Modernist’ form of criticism is one which offers to isolate and to identify ‘modernist’ art as a distinct qualitative presence within the modern. It was not my intention, however, to suggest that the relation between criticism or theory and art is necessarily intransitive.
The term ‘avant garde’ is used to signify a faction or aspect within a modern development which is nodal, often self-consciously so, since the formation of an avant garde implies the identification and expression of a common interest among a group of individuals. This study is largely concerned with those kinds of problems and interests which were distributed among various artists. This is not to say that individuals do not make history, or art history. But the book is not intended as an account of individual careers, and development in the work of individuals is for the most part considered with regard to the larger narrative. The need to advance this narrative is offered as justification for the scant attention paid to those artists such as Matthew Smith whose work was pursued during the period in question in circumstances of comparative isolation, apart from group activities. It is also the reason why no attempt was made to trace to the end of the period the careers of those such as Sickert and Wyndham Lewis who lived right through it.
It should be stressed that this book is concerned essentially with the arts of painting and sculpture and their near relatives, and with concepts of modernism in these arts specifically. Design and architecture are considered only when and in so far as they become implicated in discussions primarily relevant to painting and sculpture (as they do, for instance, in arguments about the nature of abstract art during the 1930s).
The pictures were chosen so as to provide adequate reference for the text without extending to illustrations of merely documentary interest. A decision not to include comparative works by non-English artists was taken for reasons of cost. In this second edition a major improvement has been effected through the reproduction of a number of works in colour.
I have corrected some errors of fact made in the first edition and I have extended the bibliography to take account of recently published material. I have also changed some misleading passages where I could do so without substantial alterations to the text. I have not attempted to revise my arguments or examples, however. To have done so would have been to produce a different book.
My considerable obligations to other writers are exposed in the Notes. Numerous individuals assisted my original researches by giving of their time in conversation, by responding to written inquiries, or by providing facilities and materials for study. At an early stage in the project from which this book developed I received hospitality and particular encouragement from Jim Ede, Ivon Hitchens, Ben Nicholson, Cyril Reddihough and Helen Sutherland. I remember each of them with gratitude. I would also like to thank those students of the Open University and of other institutions who put the first edition of this book to use in ways which have justified its reissue. My final and continuing debt is to the criticism and conversation of my friends.
Charles Harrison
October 1993
Preface to the Second Edition
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